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Warner Bros. Pictures
As the Spartan phalanx advances, attacking Persians fall into the sea in this scene from "300."
In the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, boys are taken at age 7 from their families for years of, well, Spartan training, to become warriors of matchless strength and suicidal bravery. King Leonidas hails them as a breed apart from those wimpy "philosophers and boy lovers" of rival Athens.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro.
Director: Zack Snyder.
Rating: R for graphic gory battle sequences, some sexuality and nudity.
Web site: 300themovie.warnerbros.com/
Family Film Guide
Along comes Xerxes, the Persian conqueror, demanding they submit to him and surrender their weapons, to which Leonidas gives Sparta's (and the National Rifle Association's) immortal reply: "Come and get them." That's the 480 B.C. equivalent of "Bring 'em on!" and the subject of a mighty -- and mighty bloody -- epic called "300."
Based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, "300" is a spectacular comic-book-to-film rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans fought to the death against a Persian force that was a thousand times larger in number.
Neither the Force nor the odds were with Leonidas (Gerard Butler), who, despite oracular warnings, led the best and the buffest of Sparta to the Grecian coast, where a Persian fleet extended as far as the eye could see. At a narrow pass there, the Greeks deployed their patented phalanx -- a wall of overlapping shields and layered spears -- to thwart a head-on assault, picking off the Persians like olives on martini toothpicks and using the dead bodies as mortar in a great defensive wall.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch in Sparta, Leonidas' stalwart Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) struggles to resist the sinister political and sexual schemes of Theron (Dominic West) and does a pretty good job of entering his entrails with a knife. But, alas, the hunchbacked Greek traitor Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) informs Xerxes of a secret path around Thermopylae and its heroic defenders.
Director Zack Snyder's previous credits involve TV commercials, music videos and the 2004 remake of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead." Okaay. This screenplay by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad wastes no time on subtleties or historical explication, concentrating on blood 'n' guts and Miller's grandly simplistic idea that the Spartans at Thermopylae were defending all of past, current and future Western civilization against the barbarians. If Greece fell, the rest of Europe would be next. By delaying if not defeating the Persian hordes, Leonidas would give the other Greek city-states time to mobilize and fight them collectively.
Miller's inspiration for the original Dark Horse Comics series was his boyhood enthrallment with "The 300 Spartans" (1962), a stiff but respectable old feature starring Richard Egan and Ralph Richardson. Snyder's embellishments include pumping up the importance of Queen Gorgo to the point -- just when everybody else back home wants to cut and run -- Gorgo shows up at the Spartan House of Scantily Clad Representatives to argue for a surge.
Hmm. Detect any parallels? Some are viewing Leonidas as a former-day stand-in for George W. Bush (defending democracy at any cost). "Freedom isn't free!" he says. Others see Dubya as Xerxes (leading a huge force against a small country to finish a job his father Darius left undone).
You can if you want, but -- for my own safety -- I'm not going there.
Suffice to say, it's the Greek Alamo, depicting the kind of real and mythical heroics found in Homer's "Iliad" and visually similar to the recent adaptation of "Sin City," except in fuller color. Breathtaking battle scenes rely heavily on computer-generated F/X, with fidelity to the panels of Miller's graphic novel. The actors performed largely in studios against backdrops, subsequently layered with stylized exteriors and color coordinated to the mood. Color the mood red, usually, with a plethora of impalings and decapitations accompanied by bright scarlet sprays of blood in loving slo-mo. Definitely not for the squeamish.
My three favorite things:
(1) A rare black-comic interlude when Leonidas' men roam the battlefield, casually delivering coups de grace to the moaning enemy survivors and whistling while they work, stacking up corpses to form a giant (Persian-demoralizing) wall.
(2) Persian King Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro as a dressed-to-party skinhead with eyeliner, long fingernails and more piercings and nose rings than you'd find on all of Carson Street. He looks like no one so much as Ru Paul.
(3) Xerxes' weapons of mass destruction: his metal-masked "Immortals" shock-and-awe troops, his charging rhinoceros and his middle-aged mutant monsters, some with thalidomidal flippers and crab claws -- all afflicted with the heartbreak of psoriasis.
Butler, much buffed since "Phantom of the Opera," has a fine maniacal smile, teeth and pointy beard, a man of few words and many pauses as he bellows repetitive exhortations to the Spartans. It's a relief when Headey appears, partly because she's soft-spoken but mostly because she and her mascara are the only feminine things in sight. Other than Xerxes.
The T&A here is about her T and his army's A. Rarely have so many broad shoulders, bulging biceps and full-backal (not frontal) nudity been displayed onscreen. These soldiers wear not so much loincloths as form-fitting spandex briefs. Plus a cloak. That's it.
"300" could have benefited from some clarifying material and a nod or two to real human emotion. But this is what its makers wanted and intended -- about as close to a comic book as a movie can get. For sheer spectacle, it drew healthy applause at the screening.
But were the Persians really such ruthless invaders? The Spartans such committed freedom-fighters? The latter, actually, were fighting in large part for the freedom to enslave others. Athens had the democracy. Sparta had a military oligarchy and had more slaves than any other Greek city-state. A case could be made that the Persian kings, by contrast, were kinder and gentler. Didn't King Cyrus mercifully let the Jews go home?
One final historical note, at no extra charge: There were 300 Spartans at the pass but some 6,000 other Greeks previously. When the Spartans dismissed their allies and prepared for a last stand, 700 Thespians stayed and died alongside them.
Ah, how different history -- and film history -- would be if 700 Thespians instead of 300 Spartans were so lionized. But how confusing. Who'd believe 700 actors would happily give their lives, with or without fabulous abs?
First Published March 9, 2007 12:00 am